What really happened on Northwest Airlines Flight 188?


On Friday the transcripts from the FAA and an email from a friend of the pilot were both released and published. The Dallas Morning News Airline Biz blog had exceptionally good coverage. I am forwarding that in this blog post.

Airline Biz had two interesting items Friday about the Northwest Airlines (Delta Airlines) flight last month that alarmed people after it didn’t have radio contact for more than an hour, and it overflew Minneapolis-St. Paul.

They included the Associated Press story that talks about the Federal Aviation Administration transcript of the conversations between air traffic controllers and the pilots on the flight.

Plus, Airline Biz included the complete email from a friend of the pilot that sought to explain what happened and why the aircraft was out of communications for so long.

Here is the email from the pilot’s friend, taken from the Dallas Morning News Airline Biz blog.

Hi All,

I had a one hour conversation with Tim Cheney yesterday and would like to shed some light on what happened to cause the over flight of their destination, MSP.

Before I begin with details, I wanted to say right up front that although there are many events that helped to cause this, Tim takes full responsibility and places no blame on anyone but himself. He is very humbled by what has happened and fully understands that as captain, he was responsible for the a/c, crew and passengers. That said, he wanted me to know how it all happened. Secondly, he has the full support of his neighbors in Gig Harbor, WA, as well has his church parishioners. One of his neighbors wrote a letter to the Star & Tribune in Minneapolis saying how great a family the Cheney’s were, I agree.

On their flight from San Diego to Minneapolis, after passing Denver, the f/a called the cockpit to let them know Tim’s crew meal was ready. Tim was the “flying pilot” on this leg, so he told his F/O that when the f/a brings the meal up, he will step back to use the restroom. When Tim returned, the F/A left the cockpit and he began to eat his crew meal. When a pilot leaves to use the restroom, it is customary for the other pilot to brief him on his return on “any changes”, such as altitude, heading, course changes or atc center frequency changes, etc. In this instance, nothing was said….even though the f/o had received a frequency change. The problem that occurred was that the f/o never got a response on the new frequency….it was not the correct frequency….it was a Winnipeg Canada Center Freq.

Now, Denver Center is trying to get a hold of them because they never checked in, because the f/o had dialed in the wrong freq……that is who called them so many times….but, then there was a shift change at Denver Center and no one briefed the new controller that there was a NORDO A/C (non communications) in their airspace….so, in actuality, atc basically “lost” this a/c…..see Wall Street Journal article below.

Tim told me he heard atc chatter on the speaker and so never thought they were out of radio range…..but, of course, they were hearing pilots talk on Winnipeg Center. For non-pilots…..when we don’t hear anything for a long while…we ask atc if they are still there….sometimes they are and sometimes you are out of their area and need to find a new frequency. With this chatter going on, there was no concern that they were not being controlled.

Then Tim told the f/o that the new bidding system was horrible and that his November schedule was not what he hoped for. He mentioned that his son was going into the Army in Dec. and he wanted certain days off so he could see him off…..the f/o said he could help him, he knew more about the new bidding system. Tim got his lap top out and put it on his left leg and showed the f/o how he bid. He told me he had his lap top out for maybe 2 minutes. Then the f/o said that he would show him how to do it on his laptop. He had his laptop out maximum of 5 minutes.

Let’s also add the 100 kt tail wind that they had to the discussion, not helping matters.

The f/a’s called the cockpit on the interphone(no they did not kick the door, no, no one was sleeping, no, no one was fighting) and asked when they will get there. They looked at their nav screens and were directly over MSP. Because they had their screens set on the max, 320 kt setting, when the f/o called on the frequency, which of course was Winnipeg Center, he saw Eau Claire and Duluth on his screen. They asked where they were and the f/o told them over Eau Claire, which was not even close, but MSP had disappeared from the screen even though they were right over the city.

They were, as you all know, vectored all over the sky to determine if they had control of the a/c and Tim kept telling the f/o to tell them they have control they want to land at MSP, etc. They landed with 11,000 pounds of fuel (no they did not come in on fumes, but had 2 hours in an A320) and not but 15 minutes past schedule, even though they left San Diego 35 minutes late due to an atc flow restriction.

In the jet-way awaiting them were FBI and every other authority you can imagine.

Aftermath and tidbits:

Although these pilots filed an NASAP Report, which was designed to have pilots tell the truth about events, so the FAA could learn from them, they had their licenses revoked by the ATL F.A.A. even before they came out of their meeting with NTSB and NASAP meetings.

ATL FAA is really big on this new regulation which will allow pilots to take a short nap in flight so they will be rested for the approach…they were insistent that they were sleeping.

MSP FAA, Vance (do not know last name) was the person who handed Tim his revocation letter(which was leaked to the entire world by the ATL FAA). Tim said Vance had tears in his eyes and walked away, said nothing. It was later learned that the entire MSP FAA office did not agree at all with revoking their pilot’s licenses, but had no jurisdiction over the matter, since ATL FAA had control because of Delta.

The pilots have been to Wash. D.C., ATL and MSP for several meetings. In ATL, they met with the chief pilots and Tim said they could not have been nicer. They are working to resolve this, not to try and fire them. But of course, they will have to get their license back for Delta to consider allowing them to continue flying. The appeal has been files for the FAA to reinstate their licenses or to settle on some form of punishment, etc.

When Tim and his wife were in MSP for a meeting with the NTSB, they happen to be staying at the same hotel as the NTSB was. The next morning in the lobby, the NTSB official came over to Tim and said he did not know why they even called them in for this event. There was no safety issue. Also, MSP Center informed Delta that there never was a problem and no aircraft were near their plane. Even though no radio communications, they had been followed and separated.

Yes, the company tried to contact them on ACARS, but the 320 does not have a chime…it has a 30 second light which then extinguishes.
Tim always has 121.5 tuned, but as we all know as pilots, it can get very noisy at times and we turn it down and sometimes forget to turn it back on. He told me this may have been the case.

So there were so many factors which helped to cause this episode. Anyone would have likely prevented it…..properly checking in on the new frequency would have been the first one…..

A note about laptops…..in NWA’s A.O.M (I think it stands for airman’s operation manual), it does not say we can’t use a laptop, however in Delta’s A.O.M., it does, we are transitioning now and we actually have pages from both airlines. When our union showed this to the attorney’s, they could not believe the confusion put on our pilot group. But, D.C. F.A.A. put out a new possible ruling which will disallow all laptops……so stupid, don’t they know Jet Blue has laptops on every aircraft and soon all airliners will for the electronic Jepp charts.

These are the facts and again, Tim said he feels very bad for the company and the pilots and is hoping for a positive outcome on their appeal. With 24 years at NWA, 21,000 blemish free hours, it would be a mistake to ruin his career over this in my opinion.

Thank you,


  • dmc

    I’m going to assume you also believe in the Easter bunny. Shortly after this happened, I spoke with friends – 2 are long time pilots for a major US airline and one is a pilot for a major international airline. I asked about this and without a single momemt of hesitation, the answer was they were sleeping – not a doubt in their mind.

  • todez

    I don’t care if they come from nice families. When I’m on an airplane, I trust them to DO THEIR JOBS. My life is on the line and that is what matters most to me. NO ONE can tell me that my safety would not have been in peril. If they were not paying attention, ANYTHING could have happened. And who is to say that this is the first time that they have done this, or other pilots for that matter. It is a VERY serious matter. Their punishment is just.

  • MVflyer

    I personally don’t care about the mitigating circumstances (Not that I believe him–he sounds like he’s trying to blame everything or anybody but himself)…these guys screwed up and should pay the price. At the absolute least, they know how long the flight should be –once they get within 200 miles of MSP and not hearing any chatter about entering MSP airspace should have been a clue.

    To me it’s clear–they were not in control of their a/c, they were risking the passengers’ lives–they deserve to have their tickets pulled and lose their jobs.

  • pilot A

    Nice that Mike supports Tim, nice that Tim comes from a “nice” family, nice that Tim apparently goes to church, where they support him, too.
    But, Tim earned the right to have his license revoked, and if he doesn’t have the integrity to admit they were snoozing, then so long, buddy, get in the unemployment line.

  • Catherine51

    Hey, his CHURCH supports him … that should be enough for the FAA to forgive him, too! To heck with the passengers! Hey, even this involuntarily retired Delta ground service person knows … you do NOT discuss schedules when you are on duty and have passengers in front of you? How do you spell B-R-E-A-K R-O-O-M?? duh. There was absolutely NOTHING you could do about your schedule to change your days off when you were FLYING, for God’s sake! Why couldn’t you wait until you got to your hotel … or, if it was urgent, wait until you were walking through the airport to your crew bus? I know what would have happened to ME if I had tried that act while on the ticket counter… and WE did not have a union! You should expect no less.

  • Beverly Bowman

    I think maybe a restriction on the license would be justice enough for these pilots as punishment.
    I used to fly a lot as a passenger
    There is more to it than passengers would believe. Everything is not black and white.

  • David Z

    Whatever eventually results out of this, good luck to the currently ex-pilots.

  • Bill

    The bottom line is they overshot their destination AND no one could get in touch with them. I find that troubling. The fact that his church supports him is of no consequence. We do not have churches running our ATC.

  • Biff Jones

    I am not a pilot but I did spent 8 years working on F-15s in the Air Force and I have flown over 500,000 miles commercially. I have mixed feelings about the contents of this letter.
    I believe it is possible to be on the wrong frequency and maybe they did miss the ACARS light. But a few things do bother me:
    1. Pilots file flight plans. They take into consideration such things as flight times, ground traffic, weather and tail winds. The would have calculated an approximate landing time before they ever left the ground and they would have updated it in flight.
    2. How can you possibly pull out a stowed laptop, fire it up, sign on and get into their scheduling system, do what you need to do, shut it off and stow it away in less then 5 minutes?
    3. They can’t read their on board map?

  • Bill

    I think the punishment – including the loss of license, jobs and the ability to get another one was unduly harsh, premature (action taken before investigation complete), and a knee jerk reaction to the media outrage of the day.
    I am a captain for a major international airline. I have flown Airbuses. Their story is mostly plausible. The only part I doubt is the accuracy of the 5 minutes on the laptop (it may have SEEMed like 5 minutes, but you know what a time suck-hole a computer can be).
    I don’t think safety was actually compromised.
    It’s soooo easy to say they should “pay the price.” Have you ever F#@*ed up? Do you think your life should have been ruined by it?

  • MikeZ

    I’m glad their neighbors and church members support them. I wonder if the passengers aboard that flight feel the same way.

    Had these two guys been upfront and immediately explained what happened, this might have resulted in less-severe penalties. But their second-biggest mistake was to hide behind their lawyers and refuse to answer any questions for several days, instead of coming right out with (what they claim are) the facts. Instead, any reasonable person would conclude they used the time to coordinate their stories and hone the details. As it is, revocation or not, there are so many versions and sub-versions of this entire story that no airline in its right mind would want to hire these guys.

    Flight crews earn big bucks because they shoulder tremendous responsibility, and in this case, they abdicated it. There are cardinal rules (no pun intended for their churches) that these guys violated. In aviation, one swing-and-a-miss and you’re out — lest the entire plane and its passengers be called out.

    PS: An after-thought: Would these two guys be willing to take polygraph examinations? Granted, they’re not 100-percent accurate but, in this case, using them might help ascertain just what happened.

  • Paulette Baker

    Bill: You birds really do flock together don’t you! Yes, I’ve F#@*ed up. The difference was that I wasn’t responsible for a bunch of other people’s lives when I did it. It’s real nice that Cheney’s church and neighbors support him, but that’s totally irrelevant to the case. Nice guys do bad things too.

  • MCGJr.

    To ‘dmc’ and all the rest of you who are so sure about what was going on:
    You all sound like Obama when he said, “I have no facts, but the police acted stupidly.”

    ‘dmc’ – Were you there? Did you and your friends have some cameras hidden in the cockpit so you could see what was going on?

    At this point, I fault the FAA and other authorities who are involved for not providing the FACTS about what happened. It has been long enough to analyze all the communications that DID take place and verify the situation as described in the E-Mail. Without FACTS, I am reserving judgement.

    BTW, I am not a pilot. I have no connection with any airline or travel association. I am simply a traveler who has over a million miles on Delta and am very comfortable whenever I step on their planes. And, until proven otherwise by FACTS, as is our country’s system, I accept that the flight crew is innocent until proven otherwise. So far, I’ve seen no proof. I’ve only heard a lot of ranting from people who have no direct knowledge of what happened, many who have ulterior motives for bashing the airlines, their crews, and/or the travel industry in general. Actually, my thanks go to Consumer Traveler for at least attempting to provide the pilot’s side of the story in the absence of disclosure by those who have the real responsibility to let the pubic know what happened.

  • MikeZ

    Chill. I doubt you were there, either. But it has already been clearly established that the crew failed to maintain radio contact for more than an hour. (The FAA has published the transcripts of the various ATC attempts to reach them.) Like it or not, it’s an egregious violation of all the rules in the book and especially nerve-wracking in this age of terrorism, etc.

    Also, the Wall Street Journal now reports that the pilots are starting to point fingers at each other as being responsible for the situation.

    Yes, time will tell what the final resolution is, and I agree that the facts must be weighed carefully in closing the books on this. But let’s understand that the reactions you decry are a logical response to the fear that many have that this incident — even if isolated — reflects safety issues that none of us wants to encounter when we fly. Or when anyone flies.

  • Pilot T

    Please tell me you did some actual fact finding on this ’email from a friend’ BS… the source of which has NEVER been found. As a pilot, They were sleeping or web surfing with the volume turned down on the radio.

    Both of which earn you a big time out

  • http://www.consumertraveler.com/today/what-happened-on-northwest-airlines-flight-188/ John Mall

    Both pilots should admit they were having sex :-)